Catherine Russell has jazz in her genes. Her Panamanian-born father, Luis, played piano for Louis Armstrong and led his own orchestra; her mother, Carline Ray, is a bassist, guitarist and vocalist. After a long run as a backup singer, Russell, 55, is still only six years into her solo recording career. With a voice that wails like a horn and whispers like the snake in the Garden of Eden, she's finally claiming her place in the pantheon of 21st-century jazz divas.
"Romance in the Dark," from Strictly Romancin', shows how strong and sexy Russell can sound. The song was written in 1940 by the great blueswoman Lil Green — who actually toured with Luis Russell's band — and has been recorded by everyone from Billie Holiday to Dinah Washington to Norah Jones. Yet the glorious history of "Romance in the Dark" doesn't intimidate Catherine Russell. She uses her vocal instrument to play with the simple, sultry lines in unexpected ways: gleefully stretching out words, fracturing syllables, adding unexpected emphasis. The song feels so personal and passionate here that it might as well originate with her. With swinging accompaniment by pianist Mark Shane, Russell shines — in the dark and otherwise.